Literary Essay Present Or Past Tense

Here is a short example:

The Fellowship of the Ring is beautifully written, creative and gripping. I found that its detail, in terms of historical background and descriptions of settings and characters, allowed me to understand and empathize with the characters to the greatest degree I have experienced. The characters’ feelings became mine also. Even the sounds of the footsteps of the Elves, Dwarfs, and Hobbits are described vividly in the book. The details are what make the novel more complete than other novels. They fill up the story and make the book seem flawless. The novel has prepared
me for the second and third instalments of the trilogy with success and ease.

That paragraph was written by a Year 10 student at another school. Ben is of Cantonese-speaking background. I have corrected his work in a few places, usually to change tense or to make subject and verb agree. See the next entry on that one.

Ben is writing a type of Response Essay, in this case a book review.

  • Study his sentences carefully. Find the verbs.
  • Notice how he uses present tense (or if he didn’t I have corrected him) whenever he talks about the text. Even “has prepared” is a kind of present tense called present perfect tense. This tense is often used to mean something that began in the past but still affects you now.
  • You write in present tense in essays like this for two reasons. 1) The text exists in the present. Imagine it is in front of you and you are telling someone what you see, what is in that text. 2) General statements of truth are in present tense. All rowers are wonderful! for example.
  • Hey, what about Ben’s second sentence? Isn’t that in past tense? Well spotted. Yes it is, but that is because he has shifted from talking about the text to talking about himself and what he experienced. The same would happen if he started talking about some history behind the book, such as Tolkien’s life, or what happened in World War I that led to Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings. Notice too that Ben is reporting thoughts there, so when he says I found (past tense) the THAT-clause following needs to be in past tense too.

    So, the rule is talk about the text in present tenses, but if you shift focus to talking about yourself or history, you may need past tenses for that part. Remember to go back to present tenses as soon as you are talking about the text again.

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    This is a really good question, and it demonstrates your interest in writing the most effective essay possible; so I commend you for asking. The short answer is that it depends on the type of essay you will be writing. The general rule for all essays--and any other type of writing--is to pick a tense and stay consistent. Shifting verb tenses is one of the most distracting things for a reader to endure; write in one tense and change tenses only to indicate a shift in time or some dramatic purpose.

    Narrative essays are a bit of an exception to the rule because they tell a story, and the nature of storytelling is to shift sometimes between the past, present, and future. Again the key to this is to start in one tense and use it consistently until you have a reason to shift in time. 

    The Purdue Online Writing Lab is an excellent tool for all kinds of grammar and writing issues, and these are their exact recommendations:

    • Rely on past tense to narrate events and to refer to an author or an author's ideas as historical entities (biographical information about a historical figure or narration of developments in an author's ideas over time).
    • Use present tense to state facts, to refer to perpetual or habitual actions, and to discuss your own ideas or those expressed by an author in a particular work. Also use present tense to describe action in a literary work, movie, or other fictional narrative. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, you may wish to narrate an event in present tense as though it were happening now. If you do, use present tense consistently throughout the narrative, making shifts only where appropriate.
    • Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.

    For most descriptive, argumentative, and expository (informative) essays (which covers nearly every possibility), use present tense throughout, changing only when it is appropriate for effect or to enhance meaning. Happy writing!

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